Down with the kids

With competition in the kids programming market becoming more intense, channel providers are looking to ways to cement brand loyalty at as young an age as possible. Andy Fry reports.

St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, doesn’t get too many mentions in the TV trade press. But his famous epithet “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man” could have been written with 21st century kids channels in mind (though he may have had to rephrase it to include the words “pre-school” and “girl” and “the 18-24 demographic”).

The perceived value of capturing kids attention at a young age is evident in the way that MTV Networks International is currently prioritising the rollout of its preschool channel Nick Jr at the same time as Turner Broadcasting has thrown its weight behind rival channel Cartoonito. The fact that EMEA is awash with channels for this demographic doesn’t seem to faze these broadcasting heavyweights. Steve Grieder, executive vice-president of Nickelodeon and programme sales for MTVNI, says there has been “a sophisticated effort to rollout a global Nick Jr feed with 16 language tracks”. Instead of hanging around until the conditions are right for a fully-localised channel, the aim is to “get the Nick Jr brand out to every territory we can.”

Grieder says this speeding up of Nick Jr’s rollout is partly to do with “the great pre-school content we have which really needs more than a block on the Nickelodeon Channel.” But a more significant reason is the one given by St Ignatius. “We know that if we appeal to kids when they’re young we are able to build a long-term relationship with them,” he adds.

MTVNI knows this because it has a generation of US adults that have grown up with the Nick brand. “Part of the rationale for the Nick at Nite family slot is that we have an audience that is happy for Nick to be part of their prime-time family viewing,” says Grieder. “These are people who trust our brand.”

Digital media

This emphasis on pre-school is, of course, more critical than ever thanks to the impact of digital media on older age-groups. The danger in not getting to kids at pre-school age is that your brand does not become imprinted on their psyche before they take control of their own media consumption, from around seven to eight years old.

Of course, the fact that so many of the major players are operating in the pre-school zone means that they need to come up with points of difference when pitching platforms. How, for example, does Cartoonito add to a universe that already includes Nick Jr, Playhouse Disney, JimJam, Cbeebies and a multitude of local channels like TiJi in France? “We’ve put lots of emphasis around the shared viewing experience,” says Pete Flamman, senior vice-president, entertainment, northern Europe and the UK at Turner. “The channel is about helping children develop the social skills they’ll need once they start interacting beyond their own family.”

“We know that if we appeal to kids when they’re young we are able to build a long-term relationship with them.”
Steve Grieder, Nickelodeon

Unlike Nick, Turner doesn’t start with a big library of pre-school shows, so there has been emphasis on original production. “We went from library-based content to original production for older kids,” says Flamman. “Now, we are investing in pre-school shows which have a local focus, such as our Dance Club format which has done well in Poland and Germany.”

Flamman acknowledges that it is a competitive sector, but he says that there are still a number of holes in the distribution map that channels like Cartoonito can fill. “Clearly markets such as the UK and France are extremely competitive. But for many platforms in EMEA the prospect of a new kids channel is very attractive, because the platforms generating the best revenues tend to have a strong kids offering. So, when a serious investor such as Turner, with 60 million homes and 1,300 platform partners comes calling, that is very compelling.”

While pre-school is competitive, it has to be said that the seven-14 year-old market makes it look like a cakewalk. For the most part, we are still dealing with the same major TV players, but now there is competition for kids attention from social networking sites, mobile applications and a wide array of gaming platforms, not to mention programming that is ostensibly aimed at older audiences. For Grieder, this means that branding becomes a critical consideration. “If your brands are not available in all forms then the audience doesn’t take you seriously. That’s why we have developed our ‘one brand’ strategy behind Nick [see sidebar] and that’s why we make sure that our strong programme brands like iCarly are available in many forms because that’s what fans of the show want.”

This last point is an interesting inversion of orthodox thinking. Rather than seeing licensing and merchandising of ancillary products as just another form of commercial exploitation, Grieder views it as a crucial component of audience engagement. Perhaps this philosophy also explains the seemingly odd marriage between Discovery Communications and toy company Hasbro, which joined forces recently to launch a kids channel in the US. If we accept Grieder’s argument that audiences actively seek out cross-platform engagement with brands, then the combination of Hasbro’s properties and Discovery’s market position makes strategic sense.

There is a similar emphasis on brand extension from Turner’s Flamman, who says that a lot of energy goes into supporting flagship shows like Ben 10 and Scooby Doo: “Channels still need a diversity of shows on-air. But we are getting better at building and sustaining our key franchises across platforms. Ben 10 is in live action, animation, movies, games, apps and a range of licensing and merchandising.”

Maintaining relevance

But do kids really immerse themselves in properties so completely? Surely they behave in a more random way, grazing content and moving on. “It would make a great Powerpoint slide to have a kid in Ben 10 pyjamas watching the show and playing the app,” says Flamman, “but it’s not that simple because there are so many things for them to do. The point about our business is that we provide multiple touch points. We have to be totally comfortable with the way the audience interacts with media to maintain relevance in their lives.”

This doesn’t just mean driving distribution out through digital, says Flamman: “We’re a pay-TV business. But where it makes sense to have a free-to-air block we do it, because that supports our brands and creates different kinds of opportunities in licensing. We have a deal with Kabel 1 in Germany, for example.”

Given all of the changes in the business, you might expect broadcasters to report a revolution in their revenue model. But that’s not really the case, says Flamman. “The digital business model is still evolving,” he says. “What we’ve really noticed is that our distribution growth has reached a critical mass that appeal to advertisers. We’ve also got the kind of scale that retailers want to see when it comes to backing a licensing and merchandising property. It used to be the case that they would only be interested in free exposure.”

The kind of themes outlined above also underpin the work being done at Disney. In pre-school, the recent focus has been on expanding the global footprint at Playhouse Disney, with particular emphasis on drilling down distribution in Asia. Among older kids, the focus has been on building Disney XD, the boy-skewing action-adventure brand that replaced Jetix during 2009. Like Nick, the goal here is to link all channels through the medium of the master-brand.

Now that XD has settled in, it’s interesting to note that attention has switched to the development of content brands that work across platforms. In March, for example, Disney unveiled plans for a TV series based on the revitalised movie franchise Tron. Tron first saw the light of day as a film in 1982 and will see an updated sequel Tron: Legacy reach cinema screens in December 2010. Then in 2011, there will be a CG-animated TV series preceded by promotional micro-episodes.

Given the size and scale of the big three international players, it’s hard to believe that anyone else can survive in this market. But the reality is that there are a few players that have found ways of offering an alternative kids channel proposition. One of the best examples is preschool channel JimJam, a joint-venture between Liberty Global-owned Chellomedia and Hit Entertainment. “Creatively, the strength of the channel is Hit pre-school brands like Bob The Builder, Thomas The Tank Engine and Barney, which tell platforms and parents that JimJam is a trusted, safe environment,” says general manager Wayne Dunsford. “These shows have real cachet in the international sector.”
Dunsford does buy in channel-appropriate third-party content, but is limited to some extent by the fact that JimJam operates via four pan-regional feeds. This makes it harder to clear rights on shows. That said, says Dunsford, “We don’t need to buy in too many titles because pre-schoolers are happy with higher repeat patterns. More of an issue is evolving the look of the channel, which is why we did a channel refresh in February to inject more personality into JimJam.”

JimJam’s success is not just about its content, however. The fact that it has managed to secure distribution in 15 million homes since 2006 is partly down to Dunsford’s experience and partly to do with Chellomedia’s astute understanding of the distribution landscape. “Platforms are definitely taking more time over their decisions because of the business climate,” says Dunsford. “But we have continued to make good inroads in Asia and the Middle East. We recently secured distribution on the Showtime Orbit platform, which was great news for us because all channels were vulnerable when those two businesses decided to merge their operations.”

Localised services

As a group, Chellomedia mixes its portfolio between pan-regional thematic channels and much more localised services. So alongside JimJam, it now has investments in Portuguese kids broadcaster Panda and central European kids channel Minimax. “The thing that distinguishes us from most of the international majors is our commitment to localisation,” says Peter Lakits, chief operating officer of Chello Central Europe. “All of our channels are fully-localised, something our audiences really like.” This goes well beyond market-by-market language tracks, says Lakits: “We air a lot of locally-produced classic animation which appeals strongly to parents who remember it from their own childhood. But in addition we do a lot of events and promotions designed to appeal directly to the local audience. We also cherrypick quality international shows but it is the localness that makes us stand out from rivals.”

Localness is of course expensive, which explains why Minimax isn’t available wall-to-wall across the region: “But we are looking at further expansion,” says Balázs Hajós, regional director, affiliate sales and business development, Chello Central Europe. “Bulgaria, Albania and further development within former Yugoslavia are possibilities, as is Poland although it is very competitive.”
KidsCo, which aims at an older kids demographic, has a similar strategic framework to JimJam. With the big studios increasingly favouring their own in-house content, KidsCo has become a champion for independent kids studios seeking a channel outlet – notably its shareholder Cookie Jar Entertainment. At the same time, it has distribution expertise in the guise of general manager Paul Robinson and two channel backers, NBC Universal and Corus Entertainment (which also happens to be the parent of Nelvana, thus providing another bank of content).

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Access to strong international franchises such as Paddington, The Wiggles and Dinosquad  has made it possible for Robinson to get KidsCo into 85 countries via four international channel feeds. By controlling the number of video feeds but expanding the number of language tracks to 18, Robinson says KidsCo has found a balance between localisation and financial viability. “The thing that platforms like about us is our high-quality, non-violent content,” he says. “But they also realise that they can get KidsCo at a competitive price. It’s a big help, particularly against the backdrop of today’s economic climate.”

After a barnstorming couple of years of building out distribution, Robinson says he’s looking to deepen the channel’s presence in markets including France, Germany and Spain. In some ways, this can be harder than tagging a new country to the list, since it implies doing a deal with a major platform player, so what is it that platform operators tend to look for aside from tent-pole shows and a decent financial deal? “Some kind of commitment to localisation is important,” says Robinson, “so we are spending more on regional co-productions. There’s also a growing expectation among platforms that a VOD service will come as a standard accompaniment to the linear channel.”

As a channel provider, how does he feel about this added requirement? Is it an extra burden that, in the long run, could actually kill linear channels? “I don’t see any evidence of that. VOD seems to add a little bit of audience immersion, but I don’t see anyone replacing linear channels because they are such a key part of how people relax. There’s so much more to a good channel than a VOD listing,” says Robinson.

Non-US entities

All of the above channels are, at some level, US-backed. But there are a handful of non-US entities that have strayed beyond their domestic market. One high-profile entrant into the EMEA market is the BBC’s Cbeebies, which has done very well in a short space of time, according to Ian McDonough, vice-president, commercial development, EMEA, BBC Worldwide Channels. “CBeebies is now in 2.4 million homes in Poland and 1.8 million homes in South Africa,” he says. “It’s the number one international children’s channel on Poland’s Cyfrowy Polsat with Harry and Toto, Mister Maker and Big Cook, Little Cook proving  popular. In South Africa last year, we experienced a 114% leap in our audience share on DStv with Little Robots, The Roly Moly Show and Charlie and Lola our strongest performers.”

The BBC positions itself as safe, quality programming. But this needs to be linked to localisation, says McDonough: “The  CBeebies schedule is designed with the local audience in mind. There are local presenters in South Africa and Poland to link shows. All programmes in Poland are also dubbed into local language. We conduct research and encourage feedback from viewers to ensure their preferences are incorporated into the channels. We plan to commission and produce local programming in the future.”

Echoing the other players, he also underlines the importance of joined up thinking: “We work with licensees to create a deeper connection between the audience and channel. For example, there were events in South Africa this March to promote In the Night Garden books which were hosted by the licensee Penguin Books and supported by CBeebies. We have also arranged deals to promote the channel across our children’s magazine licensees in Poland.”

Not all of the major players are commercially driven. A significant addition to the market in recent years has been Arabic-language Al Jazeera Children’s Channel (JCC) and its preschool sister service Baraem. Backed by The Qatar Foundation, the free channels play a key role in delivering a service that has Arabic-speaking children in mind. Although its primary focus is The Middle East, it reaches out to the Arabic diaspora across Europe, securing distribution on platforms including Sky Digital.

Interestingly for foreign content providers, JCC is dependent on international acquisitions because of the lack of original content available in its domestic market. However its choices are dictated by the channel’s ethos. Typical of its taste in shows is DQ Entertainment’s new CGI version of The Jungle Book, which it recently picked up. It has also commissioned Jamie Oliver’s Fresh One Productions to make Arabic-language kids’ show The Flying Saucer. Described as a cross between sci-fi and cooking, the new show fits in with the channel’s remit to deliver educative, non-violent content.

What other trends are there besides this growth in alternative cultural voices? In the commercial space, Nick’s Grieder thinks channels needs to reflect on the way in which kids are “increasingly attracted to gaming properties that immerse them in a virtual world”. However there is some hesitance about 3D’s applicability in the TV channel space: “I can see the appeal of Avatar in 3D,” says KidsCo’s Robinson. “But I’m not convinced 3D is right for kids TV, other than as occasional one-off events.”